“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Memorial Day weekend I went out for a great trail run with a college buddy, Mike. We did about 14 miles of running and another 2 miles of hiking through the Difficult Run Trail and Great Falls Park. Everything about the run was near perfect. I was with my best friend and away from the hustle of Washington DC. The weather was in the high 60s to low 70s, and there was plenty of shade to keep us cool. We got off track a couple times (some might call it lost), but that only added to the adventure. Had we been wearing Atayne apparel it would have been absolutely perfect (sorry, that will be the only bit of shameless self promotion in this post).
Besides reminding me that I need to get off the pavement and spend more time on the trails, the run once again opened my eyes to an issue that is often easy to overlook – trash.
As we were walking back to my car at the end of our run, Mike shouted from behind me, “What are you doing?!?” Not understanding what he was talking about I turned around and noticed him pointing at a discarded empty beer can. He continued, “What? Are you going to walk right by it?”
For any of you who know me this may come as a surprise. I am often accused (with good reason) of getting a tad preachy about environmental issues and have been called an organic food snob (something I am proud of). But here I was getting called out. I turned around, picked up the can, and put it in a small pocket of the CamelBak I was wearing.
The rest of the walk to the car, Mike and I continued to pick up glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans. In a short distance, we had picked up 6 cans, 4 plastic bottles, and 1 glass bottle. Unfortunately, these 11 items are a fraction of what we had to leave behind because we could not carry them all.
I think we can all agree that littering is not a good thing. It has the “amazing” ability to turn beautiful landscapes into cluttered messes. However, some of the biggest consequences of littering are ones that we don’t even see. Consider a few things.
Recycling is a very easy way to save energy. Take the 6 aluminum cans we picked up and recycled. By recycling those cans we saved the amount of energy it takes to run a TV set for 24 hours. That is also the energy equivalent of 3 gallons of gasoline. In the US alone, we throw away almost 60 billion aluminum cans per year. So we are essentially wasting the energy equivalent of 30 billion gallons of gas: this is the amount of fuel that 60 million cars use in one year.
Now think about the plastic. I am not even going to address the energy savings. I think I already got my point across above (remember – plastic comes from petroleum). What do you think would happen to the plastic bottles if we had not picked them up? Yes, someone else might have, but more likely rain would have washed them into Difficult Run, a small stream in northern Virginia. They would have flowed into the Potomac River, the Chesapeake Bay, and then the Atlantic Ocean. Then what? Out of sight, out of mind. Right?
The plastic would have broken up into smaller pieces during its journey. Some unsuspecting bird may then have mistaken it for food. Take a look at the stomach contents of just one albatross that made this mistake (Image taken from Shifting Baselines). Or it may have gotten caught up in ocean currents and made its way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of trash in the Pacific Ocean with a size estimate that varies from the size of Texas to double that of the continental United States.
This is scary and somewhat depressing stuff, but I hope at this point you don’t feel hopeless. Yes, this could be a big challenge. But with every challenge comes the opportunity for greatness, the opportunity to change the game. Let’s think about the “game” of running. Every day millions of people in the US go out for a run, and those millions of people probably pass by hundreds of millions of pieces of trash. What if a few of them picked up just one piece of trash at the end of their run? We could make a pretty big impact.
I am not in anyway going to claim that I am the first person to come up with this idea. Eco-Runner, Samuel Huber and many others were doing it before me. But I am going to claim that I may be the first to calculate the potential environmental impact.
According to Simmons Market Research Bureau there are 13.2 million people who run every chance they get and an additional 13.1 million who run occasionally. So there are over 26 million runners in the US and millions more across the globe. What if 10% or 2.6 million runners picked up a piece of trash just once a week at the end of their run and then recycled it? That would be over 135 million pieces of trash each year. If all the pieces of trash were aluminum cans and those cans were recycled, we would save the energy equivalent of 67.5 million gallons of gas or the equivalent of removing 135,000 cars from the road.
So next time you run by a piece of trash and think that picking it up (and taking it where it can be recycled) will not have an impact, think of the other 26 million runners who might be picking up a piece of trash as well. Together we can change the world.